London-based Brockwell United is a force for good, having created an inclusive and friendly environment for its football team. Now celebrating five years with a brand-new kit, we chat to a few of the players to find out why this club is proving so popular
By Eleanor Lee
Photography by Lucien Phoenix
The thought of joining a new football team can seem daunting. And if you’re a women or non-binary person with little experience in the sport, those nerves may feel all too terrifying to even try. That’s why Brockwell United, aka The Swans, are on a mission to make the process of beginning – or returning – to football as fun and friendly as possible. Originally founded by husband and wife Andrew and Ximene Weaver-Gilbert in 2017, Brockwell United was born out of Ximene’s struggle to find a friendly football team for beginners. The couple have since moved to Bournemouth, and Ellie Levitt is now club chair.
“I’ve probably been with the club the longest, from the very first day,” Ellie explains. “Ximene invited me along, I bought a couple of friends and we grew really organically. Ximene and I were complete beginners with no access to football and that has really governed how we run the team and are fully embracing of everyone, no matter their ability.” Ellie helps to voluntarily run the club along with a group of committee members including Lucien Phoenix and Sophie Page.
“I joined the team in September last year,” says Lucien. “I’m a nanny and a photographer but my role within the committee is to help organise the socials.” Originally from America, Lucien moved to England in late 2019 with some football experience already under their belt. “In the US, I played for Dyke Soccer. They started in a similar way – anyone could play regardless of ability. It was a queer-based team, but anyone could join. “My earliest notice of playing football was around the age of four and I was consistent up until the age of 11 or 12. [In America], football was a very hyper feminine environment, strangely enough. That’s the vibe I got – there was this need to prove yourself as being a girl, proving your womanhood, and I wasn’t interested in that. There was this need to go against the stereotype, whereas I’d happily fit into the stereotype of being masculine and wanting to play sports. It’s a funny one,” explains Lucien.
“On the flip side I would say that the UK (is different),” adds Sophie, the club’s secretary. “At my school, if you joined the women’s football team, you wouldn’t be considered ultra feminine. Lucien’s experience is the complete opposite of mine – it was seen as a boy’s sport.” Sophie joined Brockwell in 2018 as a complete beginner, although she recalls memories of football from her school days. “There was a mixed football tournament and I remember it being one of the scariest days for all of the girls in my year. You’d be mixed in with no training, thrown in with these boys who would be shouting directions at you. It was a very scary space, so my introduction to football was not the best,” she says.
“What I liked (about Brockwell) is that I was never judged. We’re all very different levels. There are people like Lucien who have played before and then there are others like me without experience and it doesn’t matter. We’re all together. It can have its challenges – with training you’ve got to cater to different abilities – but I’d say that that’s the beauty of it. I’ve felt that positivity from the moment I started, I’m really glad I found it,” explains Sophie. Talking with Ellie, Lucien and Sophie, it seems evident that Brockwell’s all-embracing environment is built upon past experiences and the personal struggles that they’ve faced when accessing football.
“We realised that there are a million and one different reasons why people might not have access to football,” Ellie tells me. “For me it was confidence, but there are many others. You might not be able to afford to play, you might do shift work so you can’t commit to play every week, you might have children and childcare issues.” “As a team, we tried to identify all the different barriers to access and then put policies in to remove them. The team is a force for good. It’s all about positivity, empowering people and everyone deserves to have access to that. That shouldn’t be exclusive, it should be 100% inclusive.” Brockwell is currently oversubscribed. However to ensure inclusivity across the board, the club introduced a Removing Barriers To Entry commitment whereby spaces are put aside for people of colour, non-binary people, people living on universal credit and people living with a disability. Those who qualify are automatically given access to the team.
“We appreciate that those groups of people are underrepresented in football, so we want to make sure that there’s a place for them,” says Ellie. “When people join the team, our ethos is to be the friendliest team in London and we’re making sure it’s a really welcoming place to be.” But being an inclusive team doesn’t just mean reserving spaces for underrepresented groups. Smaller shifts in attitudes and language can make a world of difference to players, as Lucien found through their own experiences.
“I tried joining a team when I moved to London but everything was gendered. I wanted somewhere inclusive, but when I say that I’m non-binary, people freak out and go ‘well we don’t know where to put you’,” explains Lucien. “I did find a team to join but they had the word ‘ladies’ in the name. At the time I was thinking ‘it’s fine, I just want to play football,’ but I quickly got over that. You have to feel included. I’m happy to tell people, ‘I think you should change your language,’ but when you’re looking for a little recreational activity you don’t necessarily want to think, ‘oh, I have to go in here and teach everybody how to do things.’”
“When I found Brockwell on Instagram, they had ‘for women and non-binary people’ in their bio, and I thought ‘that’s all I need!’ Just the fact that (they were) acknowledging it was cool so it’s definitely good to have those inclusive spaces.” To celebrate five years of Brockwell United, the club worked with a local illustrator to design a new kit, influenced by the inclusive environment and friendly ethos the Brixton-based club has developed. “I love that (the kit) is unique,” Sophie says proudly. “It’s got illustrations from a Brixton-based illustrator – that’s great. The depiction of the running figures is how we want our players to feel when they play football – carefree. I like that it’s got our ethos clearly represented on the shirt.”
“It depicts us in a kit, which I didn’t even know was possible,” adds Ellie. “It shouts fun with the funky geometrics and the people. I love the crowd that are cheering on the sleeves – it just really represents us as a team.” And throughout the design process, the club quickly realised that creating an inclusive kit isn’t just about aesthetics. “We talked a lot about the sizing and fit of the kit,” explains Lucien. “A lot of football kits for women are really cinched and (we wanted to work out) what we were going to do. In the end we did really well, coming up with something that everyone was going to be comfortable to wear and a really broad size range so everyone got to choose exactly what they wanted.”
Ellie adds that kit fit, especially for a female and non-binary team, can be such a contentious issue. “For some people, having a feminine fit might make them feel empowered but for others having more of a unisex fit might make them feel empowered. We wanted to make sure that everyone felt comfortable wearing it.” Sophie continues Ellie’s point. “It’s all about giving players that choice. Different people want different things and this is when you want them to feel most comfortable. If they don’t, then how are they going to feel empowered to play in the games and in training?” As the photographer behind the kit launch, Lucien’s main goal was to depict the natural camaraderie of the team.
“When I was moodboarding for the shoot, I wanted to show that it’s all about having a really good time but that we can also be competitive. Part of what I love about the team is the amount you can be really involved if you want to be. Everyone can bring their skills from outside the team to make this into an amazing thing. This isn’t anyone’s job but we all come together and it’s very cool.” Over the past five years, Brockwell has seen a huge shift in an increase of access and acceptance of women’s grassroots. “When we first started we were finding it hard to fill the slots and find leagues at our level,” says Ellie. “We did play in leagues but were getting absolutely battered because they were for more advanced players. But in five years, [women’s grassroots] seems to have really exploded, at least definitely in London. There’s so much more access to football, which is fantastic.”
Sophie agrees. “The momentum of both grassroots level and elite FA Women’s Super League level is increasing. There’s a correlation – the more visibility we have at national level, the more girls are going to see it as something they can take part in.” “(The 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup) blew it up as well,” adds Lucien, who explains how the tournament helped reignite their love for football. “It was the first time I was seeing representation of myself, having out-queer players on the women’s national team. I thought, ‘that’s cool, I want to get back into that.’” Despite the immense growth of women’s grassroots that Brockwell has seen, all three committee members are in agreement that there’s still work to be done.
“(Brockwell) is still relatively new and as there are so many men’s teams that are older, they’ve monopolised the football spaces in London,” she explains. “Whenever we are looking for pitch space, it needs to be on a weeknight, at a reasonable time and near a tube station so all of our players can travel safely, but they’re all fully booked. We’d like to see more quotas on football spaces, to make sure that there’s a men’s, women’s, disability, mixed team – so everyone gets a shot. That would definitely impact us.“ Lucien wants to see football become less of gendered space. They recall when they used to teach PE at a mixed school – boys and girls would have to play both netball and football and enjoyed doing so until the school decided that the boys could only play football, and girls only netball.
“You have no idea if she, or they, were going to be amazing – you’ve just cut off someone’s football career,” they explain. “That’s the difference between America and London. I was allowed to play football from an early age. I was encouraged to play whatever sport I wanted to and that’s how we have these players in the international team that are so good because they have played since they were kids.” Sophie echoes Lucien’s thoughts and calls for the normalisation of girls in football. “Having better opportunities for younger people to explore is so important. A lot of our players played when they were younger, they were really good and then when they reached a certain age, there weren’t any more clubs for them. So that’s it, their talent has just gone.” Brockwell United aren’t at all naive to the challenges that they, along with grassroots teams across the world, face moving forward – but they certainly won’t be letting anything get in the way of their mission: to empower women and non-binary people through the true joy of football.